Rodef Shalom, Temple Sinai begin process to explore collaboration
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Rodef Shalom, Temple Sinai begin process to explore collaboration

Congregations eye ways to work together

Rodef Shalom Congregation. (Photo courtesy of Rodef Shalom Congregation)
Rodef Shalom Congregation. (Photo courtesy of Rodef Shalom Congregation)

After splitting almost 80 years ago to form two Reform congregations in Pittsburgh’s East End, Rodef Shalom Congregation and Temple Sinai announced plans to explore the idea of collaboration.

The agreement was approved by each congregation’s board of trustees on Tuesday.

In a joint letter to their members, Rodef Shalom President Bill Battistone and Temple Sinai President Stephen Jurman said the two congregations have committed to “an 18-month intentional and targeted process with the goal of strengthening our Reform Jewish community.”

The process, the letter said, will involve congregation members and will include discussions, committee meetings and workshops to explore the long-term future of both congregations and “the need for continued partnership in the future.”

Recommendations for next steps will be reported to both congregations in the summer of 2025.

“No significant change to the status of our two congregations will be made without the approval of our respective Congregations in accordance with their by-laws,” the letter states.

The two congregations represent a total of more than 1,300 family units, with about 680 affiliated with Rodef Shalom and about 650 affiliated with Temple Sinai.

The reasons for exploring ways to collaborate are simple, Jurman told the Chronicle.

“We’re all painfully aware that we need to do something to strengthen our hand,” he said. “We’re all losing members. Everybody knows but no one seems to have tackled the fact that we have a serious real estate problem in the Jewish community. That’s just one of our issues. We really have needed to engage in talk, playing to our strengths and doing something to minimize our weaknesses.”

Battistone said he’s been thinking about the future of Rodef Shalom and the Pittsburgh Jewish community since becoming the board president in 2022.

“I’ve been trying to get these conversations started for the last year-and-a-half,” he said. “Fortunately for me, Steve was willing to sit at the table and have an honest discussion.”

Both presidents were resolute in the fact that, while all options are on the table, none are preordained.

“We’ve agreed upon nothing yet but to talk,” Jurman said, “and committing to a process of keeping the congregations updated.”

Battistone agreed.

“What we’re trying to do is lay a foundation and groundwork for some meaningful conversations that may result in action down the line,” he said.

Temple Sinai. Photo by David Rullo.

And while nothing, including service schedules or life cycle events, is changing at either congregation, the pair envision comprehensive conversations about programming and membership, finance and governance, operations and staff and, yes, what collaboration might mean for the congregations’ two buildings.

“I understand that we have an obligation to our 680 congregants, just like Steve has an obligation to his, to make sure we’re providing appropriate rabbinic services and pastoral care for our congregations,” Battistone said.

Rodef Shalom will be facing some transitions in the coming months. The congregation has been without a senior rabbi since Rabbi Aaron Bisno’s contract was not renewed in March 2022.

Battistone said the congregation won’t necessarily pull the application it submitted to the Reform movement for rabbinic candidates but will consider various options during its conversations with Temple Sinai — including continuing to search for a new rabbi, hiring an interim rabbi or anything in between.

The congregation is served now by Rabbi Sharyn Henry, who has been with Rodef Shalom since 1999, and recently hired Cantor Toby Glaser.

Rodef Shalom’s Executive Director Barb Feige has announced plans to retire in the spring.

In terms of hiring decisions, the congregation, Battistone said, will do “what makes the most sense during this process and for the future.”

Temple Sinai does not expect any changes to leadership during the process. Like Rodef Shalom, the congregation recently hired a new cantor, David Reinwald. Senior Rabbi Daniel Fellman began his tenure there in 2021.

Acknowledging that any change might be hard because both Rodef Shalom and Temple Sinai are comprised of “people who care very deeply for their respective congregations,” Battistone stressed that this exploration period is just a first step in a process and that nothing has been decided.

“I think people have to be willing to have dialogue and conversation about what the future looks like for both our congregations and the community as a whole,” he said. “People will certainly have questions, concerns, input and opinions on what needs to happen next.”

Jurman doesn’t expect the announcement to come as a shock to Temple Sinai’s members.

“We’ve got some really hard issues about budgets and buildings,” he said, “but the hard part of the process will be getting the two congregations to know each other. Most of us live here in the East End, so it’s not like we’re strangers, but we’re going to be in a process of joint programming and joint services and we’re going to need some time to get together on things.”

Despite experiencing membership decline — at its high point, Rodef Shalom had between 1,200 and 1,400 family units and Temple Sinai’s membership had a high of more than 800 — both presidents said the congregations are healthy and entering talks from positions of strength.

“Nobody’s back is against the wall or dictating terms,” Jurman said. “We’re talking as equals, and that’s the way it should be.”

And while the Reform movement still has the largest affiliation numbers in the Pittsburgh area — with nearly 34% of Jewish adults identifying as Reform — only 35% of Jewish households are affiliated with a synagogue or another type or worship community, according to the 2017 Greater Pittsburgh Jewish Community Study commissioned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and conducted by Brandeis University. And a 2020 national Pew study showed that only 29% of Jews under 30 identify with the Reform movement.

“At some point,” Battistone said, “we have to start having the conversation about the sustainability of the number of congregations in the city, and what we’re doing now is double-dipping into the same pool of potential congregants.”

Even after the 18-month process, Jurman said, he expects any formal action to take several years.

“We anticipate this would be a multiyear process, just from observing mergers that have occurred elsewhere in the country,” he said. “It seems that two to three years is the minimum amount of time that something like this can occur.”

As they begin the process, both presidents expressed gratitude for the other’s commitment and willingness to engage.

“I thank Steve for his open-minded cooperation and support of our joint effort to build upon the past success of both our congregations in ensuring our mutual strength moving forward,” Battistone said.

Jurman thanked Battistone for his embrace of the concept of working together to strengthen the Reform Jewish community in Pittsburgh.

“We are mutually committed to creating a healthy, sustainable future for Judaism,” he said.

As for the synagogues’ combined history — and possible realignment — Battistone doesn’t necessarily see it as coming full circle.

“I see it as a highway that breaks into two lanes,” he said, “and then merges back together. We’re heading in one direction and, while we may have split off in different lanes, ultimately the two lanes come back together.” PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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